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Coffee and a Chat with Robin Sibley, Wooden Hill Coffee

This month we catch up with Robin Sibley, Owner of Wooden Hill Coffee. With a firm commitment to sustainable practices, Wooden Hill primarily roasts Fairtrade coffee and packages them in compostable bags. Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword here; it’s a way of life. From reducing plastic use to planting trees for every 100kgs of coffee sold, Wooden Hill Coffee is dedicated to making a positive impact on the environment. After nearly 8 years of collaboration with Wooden Hill, it’s high time we sat down with Robin for a Coffee and a Chat.

Hey Robin!

Tell us about you.

Husband, Father (of 3) and just about on the right side of 50.  

Impassioned by music, football and coffee. 

We’re intrigued by your journey in coffee and how you brought Wooden Hill to life. Could you share that story and the inspiration behind the name?  

In 2015 I started Wooden Hill Coffee Company. The name derives from a local expression “up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” with the wooden hill being the stairs and Bedfordshire an elongation of bed….. round these parts people would say, “time to climb the wooden hill” meaning to go to bed. Naturally, caffeine and bedtime aren’t natural bedfellows, but I wanted a name that harked to our locality without limiting my ability to sell coffee over the borders! 

I had been working in commercial coffee since 2003 and had noticed how our business was being chipped away by local roasters offering a more tailored approach to how they distribute their coffee. I felt that this was a bandwagon I wanted to jump on before anyone else around here did so! 

What were you doing before you founded Wooden Hill? 

In the 70’s and 80’s two of my uncles worked for General Foods in Banbury where they produced Mellow Birds and Maxpax (prepacked cups of instant coffee). Paired with boiling milk, I had always absolutely hated coffee.

It wasn’t until I went to Australia in 2000 that I truly discovered “real” coffee. Having worked in hospitality since my early teens, getting a job in a café was easy enough and asking for a cup of tea on my first hungover shift was met with “nah mate, try this, you’ll love it”. I’d never heard of a flat white and never seen milk poured in this magical way and that was it, my future was born.

I also met my wife to be at the backpackers board at Sydney airport, so Australia has a lot to answer for… 

On returning to the UK a year later I just knew I wanted to work in coffee, opportunities were few and far between back then so I settled on managing a coffee shop in my home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. We used illy and I soon built up a rapport with my rep who would regularly visit us as part of their auditing process. I basically pestered my rep for a job for 18months until they told me they leaving and her job was available. 

I started as a quality auditor – cleaning machines (they were filthy in those days as no one really understood what they were doing), checking grinder settings, tweaking pump pressures/boiler pressures, barista training and generally trying to improve the quality of coffee across the Midlands… as the industry boomed, I thrived in the business until eventually I was promoted to Operations Manager. As much as I loved my job, but after 13 years I had become so distant from coffee and with the new wave of coffee approaching I felt it was time to move on, hence Wooden Hill. 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

My background was wholesale coffee and distribution, so initially Wooden Hill was set up behind closed doors as exactly that. Lockdown in 2020 meant that almost all of our customers closed their doors, the only thing we could do to stay afloat was to open our doors to the public and create a safe outdoor space where people could enjoy a ‘socially distanced’ coffee. 

As things returned to normal, wholesale continued to grow and now I had a café/shop and four more members of staff to worry about! I had gone from a one man band at the start of 2020 to a team of five, plus part-timers in 3 years. 

So a typical day now means Mimi ensuring we have milk in the fridge, coffee in the hopper and fully stacked shelves. 

Jo roasting on our 20kg Toper five days a week. 

Toby out delivering to our partners across Beds, Herts, Bucks, Northants and Cambs. 

Jack, my Ops Manager coordinating staff, events, training and so on. 

And somewhere amongst all that, we’re tasting coffees, looking after our trade customers, looking for new customers, thinking about websites, HR, health and safety, Christmas stocks/events and so on…..all the boring stuff that often gets overlooked in these interviews!!  

Sustainability is a central theme for Wooden Hill. Could you delve into how you’ve integrated sustainability into both Wooden Hill and your personal life? 

My whole ethos with Wooden Hill was to be an environmentally friendly coffee company with a focus on customer service. From day one we packed our coffee in compostable bags. People won’t believe it now, but only 8 years ago sourcing things like this was much harder than it is today. 

I would deliver all the coffee in reusable wooden crates, unloading the coffee onto the customers shelves and reusing the crates over and over, I haven’t bought a single cardboard box in all my time. Our internet orders go out in all our old boxes, sometimes it will be a cornflake box, or a repurposed cider box, who knows, but I like to think that the customer enjoys the randomness of a strange box coming to their door! Also, our retail coffee bags have labels that are made from paper embedded with wild flower seeds. These labels will grow if you plant them! 

In 2016 we started working with the Forest of Marston Vale, a local community forest project where we plant trees in relation to how much coffee a trade customer buys. The customer receives a certificate to thank them and their customers for their contribution to the woodland and they are also invited to the annual tree planting day to plant their trees and get some material for social media!  It’s been a hugely successful enterprise, we’ve planted around 1500 trees over the years, right here on our doorstep in Bedfordshire. I see other companies involved in similar projects and feel proud that some of them were influenced by our story. 

As a hippy student in Sheffield in the ‘90’s I always had a green ethos. My final year dissertation was on creating an organic café, using pallet furniture and cable reel tables. I actually had no real interest in doing this, but fast forward 25 years and it’s what I ended up doing! 

What is your approach to sourcing coffee? 

Most of our coffee comes through DRWakefield, we wanted traceability, we wanted our house blend to be Fairtrade and we wanted to work with partners that shared our ethos.  

Our other coffees come through local contacts that are literally importing coffee in from their family farms in Brazil and Rwanda. 

Is there anything you like doing in your spare time? 

I’m a father of two boys and a girl. Childhood is fleeting and so I try to spend as much time with them as possible. I coach one of the boys football teams (sponsored by Wooden Hill of course) and watch the other two play football/netball etc. We have a dog that needs looking after and a 1913 house that needs attention. I think the spare time will come in a few years… 

If we had just one day to experience your city, what would you recommend we do? 

We have a beautiful park, sculpted by Capability Brown and once a hunting ground for Henry VIII. When we are roasting, the smell often blows into the park a mile or so away, and like a Bisto kid, you can follow the Greensands Ridge Walk through the park, up to our little roastery in the countryside and enjoy one of our many different coffees and locally made tray bakes in a relaxed courtyard environment.

Do you have a mantra you live by? 

My favourite phrase has to be YOLO! 

How do you take your coffee? 

Flat white at the start, ristretto at the end.